AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas' highest criminal court on Wednesday overturned a death row inmate's capital murder conviction because one of the prosecutors in his 2003 trial was moonlighting as a clerk for the judge in the case.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the arrangement between Midland County State District Judge John Hyde and then-prosecutor Weldon Petty clearly violated Clinton Young's right to a fair trial. Young was convicted and sentenced to death in the shooting of a man during a 2001 drug-related crime rampage across Texas.
Hyde died in 2012, but Midland County prosecutors in 2019 discovered the paid arrangement between the judge and Petty, who had also been working on the side for other district judges for years.
The appeals court noted that as a prosecutor, Petty would oppose defense motions while also drafting recommendations of denial for judges to sign. As part of the legal team prosecuting Young, Petty drafted the legal motions submitted during the trial and sometimes participated in oral arguments.
Petty's side agreement with Hyde was to perform “legal work” as a judicial clerk outside of his official duties. It paid him more $9,000 over the time spanning Young's initial indictment, trial and post-conviction appeals, which Petty handled both as prosecutor and as clerk for the judge, the appeals court noted.
“Judicial and prosecutorial misconduct, in the form of an undisclosed employment relationship between the trial judge and the prosecutor appearing before him, tainted (Young's) entire proceeding from the outset,” the court wrote. “As a result, little confidence can be placed in the fairness of the proceedings or the outcome of (Young's) trial."
The appeals court ordered Young to be removed from death row and sent back to Midland County jail under his original indictment.
District Attorney Laura Nodolf, who was elected in 2016 and who later discovered the paid agreement between the prosecutor and judge, said her office has been recused from Young's case going forward and any decision whether to retry him.
“If Mr. Young is retried, it needs to be the cleanest slate possible,” Nodolf said. "The most ethical thing would be for us to take a step back and let another office take a look at the case."
Petty, who worked as a full-time prosecutor in Midland County from 2002 to 2019, is retired. During an evidentiary hearing, he refused to testify about his paid work for the judge, citing a constitutional privilege against self-incrimination, the appeals court noted.